Ioannis D. Karavidopoulos


“Le rôle de Pierre et son importance dans l’Eglise du Nouveau Testament: problématique exégétique contemporaine,” Nicolaus. Revista di Teologia ecumenico-patristica. New Series 19 (1992): 13-29. The author considers Petrine texts in the NT as a whole, basing his exegesis on (especially Greek) Orthodox tradition and the church fathers, with reference to contemporary studies.


DID PETER have the same difficulties that Mark shows the other disciples had in understanding Jesus’mission and role as Messiah?

Upset at Jesus unexpected departure when he went out to pray, “Simon and his companions went out to find him” (Mk 1 :36). Simon is distinguished from “his companions,” but he too has failed to understand Jesus' universal mission, as seen by Jesus’ words, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (v. 38). Simon and his companions want a Jesus limited to the town where “everyone is searching for [him]" (v. 37).

The others report the rumors on who Jesus is (“John the Baptist ... Elijah ... one of the prophets”). It is Peter who confesses the messianic identity (“You are the Christ,” 8:27-33), but Jesus turns and orders the disciples as a whole not to tell anyone (v. 30).

Jesus replaces Peter's “the Christ” with the title “Son of Μan” (v. 31), a title more closely linked with the passion. When Peter opposes the passion, Jesus rebukes him in particular, although he turns and looks at the disciples as a whole, and to Peter he addresses the harshest words, “Get behind me Satan!”

By shifting to “Son of Μan,” Jesus alludes to the passion and corrects Peter’s Jewish messianic expectations; Peter’s confession is worthwhile only if linked to the cross and passion, which neither he nor the others seem to understand. We think Jesus’ words on taking up the cross and following him are general, and not for Peter in particular.

Corresponding to Peter’s threefold denial (Mk  14:29-31,  66-72), Mark notes three times that the disciples slept while Jesus prayed (14:37a, 40, 41). The first time “he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep?’” In his narrative the evangelist uses “Peter,” while Jesus’ question uses the original name, Simon! Further, the evangelist . sets Jesus’ messianic confession before the high priest (14:61-62) over against Peter’s threefold denial before the high priest’s servant (14:66).

Commentators have stressed Peter's denial while ignoring the fact that he was the only disciple to follow Jesus “right into the court yard” (14:54). But the fourth evangelist will say Jesus was also followed by John, who intervened with the high priest to let Peter come in (Jn 18:16).

At the empty tomb the women are told to "go tell his disciples and Peter" (Mk 16:7). (In Matthew and Luke, Peter is not mentioned separately.) Some see this separate mention as Peter's reinstatement after his denial of Jesus. T. Smith shows an anti-Petrine stance when he sees this negatively: Peter is not acknowledged as a disciple as are the others (1985 dissertation).

Mark is neither ‘pro- nor anti- Peter,’ but his general stress is on the disciples' difficulty in understanding Jesus' person and mission. He is not polemical, but wants to teach his readers how weak they are without the Holy Spirit, just as the disciples were weak in trying to understand their master.  


Contemporary study on Mt 16:17-19 (Peter and the keys) indicates that there is a historical kernel to the scene, that the verses form an authentic unity, and that the words come not from Jesus but from the church at a time of struggle between Judeo and Gentile Christians in the Church of Syria. Orthodox exegesis admits that the words are authentic but asks some questions.

a) Is Matthew trying to correct a devalued view of Peter? He does indeed give a more favorable view than Mark does. In listing the Twelve, he puts Peter first (10:2); Peter is seen walking on the water just as Jesus did (14:22-33); Jesus orders him to pay the temple tax for both of them (17:27); at the Transfiguration Peter says, “I will make three dwellings here” (17:4) instead of "Let's make" as in Mark and Luke. And Matthew omits “for he did not know what to say” (Mk 9:6) and “not knowing what he said” (Lk 9:33). Matthew’s image of Peter culminates with the profession of faith and Jesus’ words to him at Caesarea Philippi.

Some say that in stressing Peter’s supremacy in relation to the other disciples Matthew is opposing those who are putting forward a leader, James the brother of Jesus; others say he is opposing those who advocate Paul; and others that he is correcting Mark's devalued image of Peter. There are no solid bases for these claims. John Chrysostom is most persuasive when he says that in his confession Peter is “the mouthpiece of the apostles,” “the leader of the chorus of the apostles.”

b) What meaning are we to give to “and on this rock I  will build my church”? Did the Lord promise to build his church once and for all on Peter (Roman Catholic view)? On the faith that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God (Orthodox and Protestant view)? On Peter the rock, which shows Peter's primacy, but only during his lifetime (O. Cullmann, 1952)?

According to John Chrysostom, Jesus means to build his church “on the confession of faith. At that time he shows that many will believe; he encourages [Peter] and appoints him as shepherd.”

But John has no trouble calling Peter “steadier than any rock” though he may be but a simple sinner (PG 58, 534).

Theophylactus notes that “The Lord rewards Peter by... [promising to] build his church on him.” But immediately afterwards: “This profession of faith ... is to be the foundation of believers so that every person in the future who will build his house of faith will have this  profession  as  a foundation. For even if we had myriads  of  virtues,  without  a sound  profession  of  faith,  we build in vain (PG 123, 320).”

Euthymios  Zigabenos  has  a  similar view (PG 129, 468).

Origen sums up the perspective of many Greek fathers: “Each disciple ... is a rock, and it is on this rock that every word of the church is built. ... If you think that it is only on Peter that the church is built ... what would you say of John ... or ... of the apostles?”

Origen stresses that everything Jesus says to Peter concerns all the disciples, i.e., all who want to become like Peter. All who imitate Christ become spiritual rocks, and we can understand the Savior's words as being said to all (PG 13, 997, 1000).

Orthodox exegetes will not question the authority of these words, but neither will they accept an exegetical exaggeration that holds for an eternal primacy.

c) Is the power to bind and loose given to Peter alone? Orthodox exegetes will say it is given to all the Apostles. (See also Mt 18:18; Jn 20:22-23).



Luke's Peter is not treated as ‘Satan’ in the profession of faith scene; nor does Jesus reproach him for falling asleep at Gethsemane. (Luke says the disciples fell asleep from the exhaustion caused by grief.) Peter's denial is narrated concisely and without condemnation (22:54-62). The prophecy that “from now on you will be catching people,” is addressed particularly to Peter (5:1-11). Luke is the only one to mention the appearance of the Risen Christ to Peter.

Luke's picture of Peter, then, is favorable.

Why does Jesus pray for Peter and order him ro "strengthen your brothers" (22:31-34)? Apparently he sees that Peter will be more exposed to temptation than the others, for immediately afterwards he predicts the threefold denial (v.34). Peter has always shown zeal and love for Jesus, and Jesus will not leave him without help in temptation.

The passage, then, is not an ‘important statement on  Peter’s future  role’ (Μ.J. Lagrange), but on Jesus’ interest in  his ‘brothers’-i.e., his church. Finally we note the verb: “When once you have turned  back (epistrepsas), strengthen your brothers.” Epistrepsas is not to be taken as active and transitive, but as middle-passive and intransitive The Greek fathers stress Jesus' tenderness  here  for his  ‘group  leader’ disciple.

The church fathers lived at a time when a pro- or anti- wesrem position was not a concern. Therefore they do not hesitate to speak laudatory or deprecatory words of Peter; they do not imagine that their words will be used either to support a view of Ihe papacy or to reinforce an anti-Catholic position.



In comparing Peter and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved,’ exegetes have noted a slight advantage given to John. When Jesus  washes his disciples’ feet (Jn 13) Peter has trouble understanding, but the same story shows John as the one to whom Jesus revealed the traitor. Peter denies knowing Jesus, but John is at the cross and is entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother (19:25-27). And at the empty tomb it was John, not Peter, who "saw and believed" (20:8).


After the resurrection

If Peter is first witness of the resurrection (“he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve,” 1 Cor 15:5), the first believer, the first Christian, it means only that he was the object of grace, without thereby gaining a special place or power. It would be wrong to see this first apparition as a ‘mythicization’ of his role.

“The  first encounter...with Peter is fundamental for faith, because it witnesses to... the center of Christian faith. But we cannot presume from that anything on Peter's place in the church.  [His ... place in the church is in connection with his place in the ecclesiological body of the Twelve and with his apostolic function (V. Stoyannos).”

Peter's place among the Twelve we have considered in the first part of this article.


Feed my lambs

John 21 is added not simply to tell about Jesus’ third appearance, but about Peter and John, “especially about their death, still in connection with ... chapters 1 to 20 where the well-loved disciple has a greater authority in understanding Jesus and his teaching (S. Agouridis).”

When Jesus appears on the bank of the Tiberias it is John who first recognizes him and exclaims, “It is the Lord” (21:7).

The central message of the chapter is in 21:15ff where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me more than these?" He then commands Peter to “Feed my lambs” and predicts his martyrdom. He does not intend to give Peter more responsibility than the others but to recall the promise Peter had been unable to keep: to “lay down my life for you” (13:37). Peter does not dare to say he loves more than the other disciples do; aware of his weakness and with a broken heart he says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Then Jesus appoints him to shepherd the sheep in the same way the others have this responsibility. And just as Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’ who ‘gives his life for the sheep’ ( 10:11 ), so is Peter called to be like Jesus [“Follow me,” 21:19], in this way keeping the promise to lay down his life. It is in this context that Jesus predicts Peter's martyrdom (21:18-19), a death that will make him fully a disciple and a true shepherd of sheep.

We stress the close link between Peter's pastoral service and his resulting martyrdom. From this perspective, any discussion on primacy comes into the realm of the rulers and sovereigns of this world of corruption and sin. For Christian leaders it is not to be thus, but responsibility is a service and martyrdom according to the model of the Good Shepherd.



In Acts we see Peter take leadership initiatives, but always in the context of responsibility of the Twelve or of the church of Jerusalem.  He  never acts without agreement of or supervision by the others. In choosing Matthias to replace Judas, Peter takes the initiative (1:15), but Matthias is chosen after the casting of lots and the prayer of the whole community (1:23-26).

On Pentecost; “Peter, standing with the eleven” (2:14) begins to speak to the crowd. It is as a group that the apostles decide to send Peter and John to Samaria (8:14)  and  Barnabas  to  Antioch (11:22). Peter seems to be accountable to the others, especially after Cornelius is received into the faith. Taken aside by ‘the circumcised believers,’ he explains ‘step by step’ (11:3-4) to show that he acted as he did because God had ordered it.

After being delivered from prison, Peter visited the brothers and asked that James be advised. “Then he left and went to another place” (12:17). It seems this ‘other place’ was the mission within the Judaic world (cf. Gal 2:7-8).

Peter reappears at the Council of Jerusalem. He speaks first (Acts 15:7), but the final word is by James, and the Council's decision begins: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us ...” (15:28). Earlier the decision was summed up:

“Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose  men from among their members... and to send them to Antioch...” (15:22).

After the Council Paul was highly critical of Peter who “used to eat with Gentiles” but drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the “circumcision faction” (Gal 2:12). This faction consisted of those who agreed with James. O. Cullmann says Peter’s action shows that it was not Peter but James who had the primacy. And when Pau1 refers to the leaders in the same epistle, he lists "James and Cephas and John" (2:9). Only a few mss. list Peter first.

The Orthodox exegete V. Stoyannos says the order of names does not mean anything, since Paul was not concerned with the hierarchy of church leaders in Jerusalem. Pau1 is more interested in theology and in justifying the gospel he preaches. Stoyannos also observes that in Galatians (esp. 2:7-8) we find the first mention of Peter's Greek name. The translation of the honorary surname Cephas into the Greek Petros is the counterpart of the transcription of the Hebrew Messiah into Christos. It witnesses to Peter's place of honor in the early church. We conclude from Acts and Galatians that Peter has a leading role in the church after Easter, but always ίii the context of the Twelve. After a certain time this leading role is held by James, though there is no mention of a transmission of powers or succession. Concern is with the movement of the gospel message from Jerusalem to the rest of the Roman Empire rather than with those who proclaim that message or with their authority and primacy.

Today Peter can be a pole only of unity, not of division. The Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Peter and Paul together, stressing “Peter's steadfastness, Paul’s moderation and ... wisdom, and the true divine inspiration of the two.” We summarize our conclusions:

1)  “The  one  foundation  is  Jesus Christ” ( 1-Cor 3:11 ). But Pau1 also speaks of the “building of the faithful,” “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus... as... cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). And the Apocalypse says Jerusalem “has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles” (21:14). Within the Twelve, Peter has a prominent place during his life, a place acknowledged  by Christ himself.  But Christ does not speak of a primacy beyond Peter's life.

2) The words on Peter as rock of faith (Mt 16:18) are authentic. The fathers and Orthodox exegetes will interpret them as confessing the messianic faith -the faith of every disciple and believer- that Jesus is Son of the living God.

3) Βy  connecting  Mt  16:18,  Lk 22:31-34, and Jn 21:15-19, we show that whatever primacy Peter had is a primacy not of power but of service, of sacrifice, of martyrdom. The pastoral charge he received (Jn 21 ) does not show his superiority over the others, but his re-establishment after his denial to the level of the others who carry out the same pastoral work with the anticipation of martyrdom. Martus takes on the twofold  meaning  of  ‘witness’  and ‘martyr.’

4) It is incomprehensible to speak of power and primacy in the early church, because God's omnipotent action in history does not leave space for human power (Stoyannos). Further, any NT data on a special role for any apostle “cannot have any meaning of power, strength, supremacy, or of government, for those notions are ... foreign to the notion of Christ’s apostle (I. Anastassiou).” The apostle's essential task is to proclaim the gospel message “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). (RJ)



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